What is a Sommelier?

A sommelier or wine steward is a person who is an expert in fine wine and is responsible for serving it to patrons. Sommelier is French in origin and originally a wine steward's job was to serve royalty. Modern sommeliers offer their services to fine restaurants. A sommelier should know detailed information about wine including such things as the types of grapes used to make a particular wine, in what region the grapes were grown, the vineyards where the grapes were grown, a wine's rating, and the vintages of various wines.

What does a Sommelier do?

A sommelier or wine steward is an expert in fine wine and is responsible for serving it to patrons.

In addition to serving wine, a wine steward has several other responsibilities. These responsibilities include:

  • Creating wine lists for the restaurant
  • Knowing what wine will be best with different foods
  • Maintaining the wine
  • Ordering the wine
  • Training other employees about the basic knowledge of wines

Many sommeliers travel all over the world to taste new wines and to attend food and wine conventions. A good wine expert will know all the current trends in the food and wine industry. He or she will also help patrons to feel comfortable with tasting wines and help them choose a delicious wine in their price range. Sommeliers can also learn more about wine through the opinions of their customers.

In short, a good sommelier will be able to make the customer's dining experience memorable by suggesting wines that will enhance the flavour of the food that they are eating.

Are you suited to be a sommelier?

Sommeliers have distinct personalities. They tend to be artistic individuals, which means they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive. They are unstructured, original, nonconforming, and innovative. Some of them are also investigative, meaning they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive.

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What is the workplace of a Sommelier like?

Although many sommeliers work in upscale restaurants, there are many other places and ways he/she can earn his or her money as well. These include:

  • Working in casinos or tourist attractions
  • Owning his/her own wine store
  • Creating training classes for wineries or restaurants
  • Organizing and conducting wine tours
  • Teaching about fine wines
  • Writing articles about fine wines

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I become a Sommelier?

If you have concerns that an adept sense of taste is an inborn talent, fear not. It is repeatedly said by sommeliers themselves that anyone can train their palate to a high level. One important trait that potential sommeliers must have, however, is an absolute love of (or perhaps obsession for) wine. It takes a tremendous amount of study and dedication to become a sommelier. Much of this work is self directed, so sommeliers-to-be should be strongly self motivated and willing to put the work in on their own time.

Along with needing to have a love of wine, sommeliers also need to have a love for people and for making them happy (this will come in very handy early on in the career, as tips make up a sizeable portion of a sommelier's pay). Sommeliers also need to master the art of being humble and ingratiating. A sommelier's first and foremost priority is to be of service, and using one's expertise to guide customers in choosing the perfect wine should be an enjoyable experience for both parties. The very best restaurants look to employ people who can anticipate the needs of their guests while also maximizing sales.

One of the major challenges of being a sommelier is how physically demanding the career can be. Similar to other restaurant positions, sommeliers are on their feet for a large portion of their shift. This in combination with receiving and putting away orders, as well as moving and organizing stock regularly, makes for some very tiring days.

How long does it take to become a Sommelier?

There is no one and only way to become a sommelier, therefore it is difficult to put an exact number on how long it will take to become one. Officially, there is no need for any certification, however most people will take it upon themselves to round out their knowledge and expand their palate by taking specific wine programs and classes. Doing this also improves one's chances of finding work and reducing the competition.

Being a sommelier is rarely about how much you know (though knowledge is important) and almost totally about customer service. One needs to actually listen to the guest and get them the wine THEY want, not simply the wine you think is best.

Steps to becoming a Sommelier

There are a few ways to become a sommelier. No matter which one you decide to do, the best way to start is to get a front-of-house job in a fine dining restaurant. This will give you essential experience seeing how a restaurant works, dealing with customers and most importantly familiarizing yourself with wine. It is entirely possible to work your way up from here, however it takes a tremendous amount of self directed education and work and most people choose to attain some sort of certification. Again, it's not absolutely necessary, but it will fill gaps in your knowledge and most people that want to become sommeliers like to challenge themselves and be the best they can be.

There are two main institutions when it comes to sommelier education: the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). Here is a handy chart for reference while you read about the differences between them.

The WSET is an academic program that does not touch on the service element of being a sommelier, which as previously discussed, is a crucial part of the career. There are four levels to the WSET courses, and you are able to skip to level two or three if you already have a solid working knowledge of wine.

The CMS courses require a fairly significant preexisting knowledge base before you can take them. The highest level, the CMS 'Master Sommelier', has only been reached by 236 people worldwide, however, you do not need to reach this level to work as a sommelier. Two stages before this is the 'Certified Sommelier' certification, which is highly respected.

For an in depth read on the differences between these two paths, here is a great resource.

Sommeliers are also known as:
Wine Sommelier Wine Steward Wine Professional Certified Sommelier Professional Certified Sommelier Certified Professional Sommelier Wine Expert